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Lost in the Grand Canyon | Article

John Wesley Powell's Undertakings

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Tau-Gu, chief of the Paiutes overlooking virgin river with J.W. Powell age 39. grca 13806. circa 1873, National Park Service.

John Wesley Powell and the Bureau of Ethnology
Among many of the Native American people of the West, the scientific explorer John Wesley Powell, a former Army Major who had lost his right arm in battle, was known affectionately as Kapurats, or "One-Arm-Off." It's a name he was given during an extensive stay with the White River Ute in the winter of 1868; it's a soubriquet with which he is still associated today. Unlike most white men of his era, John Wesley Powell had tremendous respect for Native Americans, an insatiable curiosity about their language and institutions, and a belief that they had a right to live their lives according to their own traditions. It was because of this interest and empathy that during all his years in the West, when other scientific teams felt they needed military escorts, he never even carried a gun.

Powell's main goal in 1868, during that first winter among the Indians, was to collect geological and geographic data about the region, but the area around his camp, now know as Powell Bottoms, was heavily populated with Utes. Powell felt compelled to learn more about them, too. He spent weeks compiling a dictionary of Ute vocabulary, learning to speak their language, and trading buckskins for cultural artifacts. This stay was the beginning of a thirty-year interest in the native peoples of the American West, during which time Powell would do much to turn anthropology in the U.S. from an avocation pursued by interested hobbyists to a respected field of academic study.

It was 1870 before Powell would spend time with native peoples again. He had returned West after his first run of the Colorado River partly to scout locations along the way where he could resupply during an upcoming second trip. But he also wanted to know what had happened to the three men who had left the expedition just before it ended. Rumor had it they had been killed by Shivwit warriors. If that was the case, he wanted to make peace with the Indians. Setting out with a group of Kaibab Indians and a Mormon guide named Jacob Hamblin, Powell headed southwest from Salt Lake City to a place 20 miles north of the Grand Canyon known by the Indians as Uinkaret or Place of Pines. The following weeks were, in the words of one Powell biographer, "one long ethnological picnic."

The people Powell stayed with were among the most untouched in America. The Major spoke little of their language, but he made himself understood in Ute. The women showed him how to roast seeds with hot coals. The men engrossed him in talk about their religion. By the time the Shivwits explained why they'd killed Powell's men, the Major had established as intimate a tie with them as any white man in the 19th century would. Instead of demanding retribution for the deaths of his men, which would have been usual in those days, he smoked a pipe with the Indian warriors. In his diary, the Major remembers the warm promises made during that meeting. "We will be friends" the Indians said, "and when you come we will be glad. We will tell the Indians who live on the other side of the great river that we have seen Kapurats and that he is the Indians' friend."

One of Powell's greatest regrets of that trip was that he didn't have a photographer with him. It was mistake he would rectify. Powell made sure he took a cameraman on his second trip down the Colorado River and also on most future trips to Indian country. In the spring of 1873, when Powell was hired by the Bureau of Indian Affairs to investigate the "conditions and wants" of the Great Basin Indians, the photographer John K. Hillers accompanied the Major on his extensive travels in the Southwest. As Powell collected and recorded the myths, tales and vocabularies of, among others, the Ute, Paiutes and Nevada Shoshoni, Hillers captured their lives on film. Sometimes, in an effort to make the Indians seem both authentic and exotic, Powell distorted reality by insisting they wear fake headdresses. And in other instances, Hillers asked his subjects to effect poses typically used by nineteenth-century portrait photographers that were awkward and alien to the native peoples. Nonetheless, this series of images provides an important and striking record of a way of life that has long disappeared.

In 1879, Powell helped push for the establishment by Congress of the Bureau of Ethnology. Over the next 23 years under his guidance, the agency would sponsor much important anthropological research. This included bibliographic compilations of all previous writings about American Indians, a "Synonymy" or dictionary of Native American tribes, and a classification of Native American languages and many new field studies. In fact, it's for this work with the agency, rather than for his own field studies, that Powell made his main contribution to anthropology. His own investigations were frequently spotty, his arguments were difficult to follow, and often his staff did much of the hard work on his classification projects. In contrast, Powell demonstrated great skill as an administrator, pulling together a loyal staff who urged others to do some very rigorous research. Despite Powell's shortcomings as a scholar, his passion for ethnography helped lay the groundwork for anthropological study in the 20th century.

Establishment of the United States Geological Survey, 1879
In the middle of the 19th century, the American West was a mysterious, untamed land from which a handful of explorers had brought back wild tales. Some claimed to have found "small craters from four to six inches in diameter from which streamed a blaze and a whistling sound." Others described how "the hollow ground resounded beneath their feet as they traveled." One explorer, "Captain" Sam Adams, claimed that gold, silver and lead ran through the rocks in many of the canyon walls alongside the Colorado River. 

With the conclusion of the Civil War, the Federal government, wanting to demystify the West, made investigating, mapping and understanding the Western territories an integral part of its domestic policy. Washington wanted to know whether the land could be farmed, what its natural resources were and how easily it could be settled. It was with this in mind that, from 1867 to 1879, legislators on Capitol Hill sponsored what came to be known as the four "Great Surveys." Each of these were grand undertakings both in terms of the amount of territory they examined and in the wealth of information contributed to the knowledge of the American West.

One of the first surveys set up was led by the imaginative and energetic Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Hayden's expedition initially came under the supervision of the General Land Office and, though it started out quite modestly, it would become the largest of the "Great Surveys." With an appropriation of $5,000, Hayden's original commission was to explore the lands of Nebraska with a view to investigating what areas of the state were suitable for human exploitation. Within two years, his annual appropriation had doubled, his investigation had been formally titled "The United States Geological Survey of the Territories," and his work had been placed under the authority of the Secretary of the Interior.  

The early years of Hayden's survey paved the way for his most ambitious expeditions, the greatest of which were probably the well-equipped investigations of the Yellowstone and Teton Mountain area of Wyoming. The photographs and drawings Hayden brought back to Washington from those trips were instrumental in persuading legislators to create Yellowstone National Park. Later Hayden moved his investigations to Colorado, a transition that would put him in direct confrontation with another surveying team. He explained his change of location saying "The prospect of [the area's] rapid development within the next five years, by some of the most important railroads in the West, renders it very desirable that its resources be made known to the world at as early a date as possible." Ultimately, Hayden's survey was important in a number of ways. In addition to mapping the West, it provided a wealth of knowledge about the region's natural history. And the artists, photographers and newspaper reporters who accompanied his teams helped to demystify the region for a generation of Americans.  

The year Hayden's operation was established, Clarence King — an aristocratic, affluent, young man from New England — arrived in Washington with a handful of recommendations from scientists and the goal of winning his own appropriation. His plan was to survey a one-hundred mile wide belt along the 40th parallel which would basically follow the route of the transcontinental railway. Despite his youth, King got what he wanted. As the Secretary of War gave him his commission, an expedition entitled the Geological Survey of the Fortieth Parallel, he also dispensed some advice. "Now, Mr. King," he said, "the sooner you get out of Washington, the better -- you are too young a man to be seen about town with this appointment in your pocket -- there are four major-generals who want your place."

Though King was somewhat eccentric in his leadership style, setting up unusually luxurious camps, he was a cautious and meticulous scholar. 

Unlike his competitor Hayden who felt that any discoveries should immediately be made known to the public, King determined that his reports would represent the careful distillation of years of research. "It is my intention," he wrote, "to give this work a finish which will place it on an equal footing with the best European productions." Though it included research in paleontology, botany and ornithology, the work of King's team focused largely on the geology of the area, specifically the mineral deposits. The seven-volume report and the accompanying atlas of the 40th parallel that came out of the investigation did much to improve the reputation of American science in Europe. King's own contribution, "Systematic Geology" was for decades a classic historical geological text. When it came out in 1878, it was most comprehensive thesis to date on the subject.

In 1867, the year that Hayden and King approached Congress for financial support of their field work, a one-armed civil war veteran also pounded the pavement in Washington looking for sponsorship of an expedition. But where Hayden and King succeeded, John Wesley Powell failed. He managed to secure nothing more than the promise of some wagons, livestock, camp equipment and surveying gadgets. It wasn't until after the success of his 1869, headline-grabbing, first expedition down the Colorado River that Powell would be granted a Congressional appropriation to "complete the survey of the Colorado of the West and its tributaries." Powell envisioned his investigations concentrating on a narrow rectangular area bordered by the Green River and the Uinta Mountains in the North, the Grand Canyon in the South and Colorado in the West.  

Of all the Great Surveys, Powell's was initially staffed with men of the least knowledge and expertise. Many of those he hired were either close friends or relatives. On the inaugural trip of his survey — a second expedition down the Colorado River — only one man was an outsider, and he was the photographer E. O. Beaman. The initial work of the survey, including the river trip and an exploration of the Great Plateau, was concluded by 1873. For the next six years, a handful of professional men (there were never more than eight) remained in the field, continuing the topographical survey work that Powell had started. Powell himself spent most of these years in Washington D.C. His survey only concerned itself with geology and produced nothing like the volume of written material that Hayden's would. But one of its most important contributions was its explanations of the formation of the Grand Canyon's geological features, which helped to open up whole new areas of geological investigation.

In 1871, the Army Corps of Engineers inaugurated its own survey. The impetus for yet another investigation of the West came in part from a feeling within the Army that civilians were usurping its traditional, pre-Civil War, peace-time activity of map-making. The Army argued that no one else was making maps suitable for military purposes. It was with this in mind that Lieutenant George Montague Wheeler was put in charge of the "Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian." His mission was to obtain "correct topographical knowledge of the region traversed...and to prepare accurate maps of that section." Additionally, he was required to determine, whenever possible, "everything relating to the physical features of the country, the numbers, habits, and disposition of the Indians who may live in this section,... the facilities offered for making rail or common roads, to meet the wants of those who at some future period may occupy or traverse this portion of our territory."

By the early 1870s, there were then four different investigations of overlapping territory, led by four charismatic and headstrong men. Conflict was inevitable. From 1872 onwards, Powell began campaigning to consolidate the work of the surveys. But Congress didn't take notice of the rivalries and needless duplication until Hayden and Wheeler's men clashed in the Colorado territory in July 1873. Shortly afterwards the House of Representatives held hearings into whether the survey work should be collapsed into one larger survey. The proceedings were notable for the succession of bitter and angry complaints. One of Wheeler's men accused Hayden of saying, "You can tell Wheeler that if he stirs a finger or attempts to interfere with me or my survey in any way, I will utterly crush him — as I have enough Congressional influence to do so, and will bring it all to bear." Faced with conflicting opinions from the various expedition leaders, Congress decided that all the surveys should continue.

In 1878, Powell agitated again for the consolidation of the three remaining surveys. In June of that year the National Academy of Sciences was asked to consider the issue. When it delivered its report a few months later, it suggested consolidating the investigations under the supervision of the Department of the Interior. Most of the rest of its suggestions were so similar to those Powell had been championing that one of the Major's aides wrote ironically, "I see the Academy has made its report and it sounds wonderfully like something I have read -- and perhaps written -- before."

A new agency, the United States Geological Survey was established in 1879 to carry out the work. King was hired as its first director. Within a year he stepped down and was replaced by Powell, who would head the organization for the next 23 years. The establishment of the agency was one of the most important achievements of Powell's career. Over the next century the U.S. Geological Survey became one of the most well-regarded organizations of its kind. Today its many activities include predicting when earthquakes will occur, evaluating water quality and producing some tens of thousands of maps. 

Though the four surveys individually made enormous contributions to the existing knowledge of the West, the U.S. Geological Survey eclipsed them, and much of what they had achieved was quickly forgotten. The beautiful maps, for example, so painstakingly compiled and accurate enough at the time to be helpful for railroad builders and farmers, are useful today only to collectors. But even though the Hayden, Powell, King and Wheeler expeditions were superseded by Powell's new agency, these four pioneers did achieve what they had set out to: They had explored the West and discovered what lay out there. They had helped to tame a mysterious and sometimes frightening land. And they had confirmed that it many ways it was as magnificent and magical as the earliest rumors would have people believe.

Water Fights
On October 10th 1893, John Wesley Powell stood before a conference in Los Angeles and said to a stunned audience: "I wish to make clear to you...[that] there is not enough water to irrigate all the lands...[and] it is not right to speak about the area of the public domain in terms of acres that extend over the land, but in terms of acres that can be supplied with water." This is not what the audience wanted to hear. The Director of the U.S. Geological Survey was cut off by an angry crowd and his words drowned out by their clamoring. A Mexican delegate attending the meeting described it as "the only bullfight I have seen in this country." 

The meeting came after a long battle over irrigation and the settlement of lands in the West, which had begun to heat up more than five years earlier. The initiating event was a Congressional resolution co-sponsored by Senator "Big Bill" Stewart of Nevada that passed in both Houses. Vaguely worded, it called on the Secretary of the Interior to examine "that portion of the United States where agriculture is carried on by means of irrigation, as to the natural advantages for the storage of water for irrigation purposes." The dry language hid many ambiguities. Where was "that portion of the United States" it referred to? Was it the government's intention to guarantee each farmer access to water? Was Washington promising to construct dams and build canals? And if not, who would? Senator Stewart represented the cattle ranchers of Nevada; what he wanted was for the Federal government to give away lands that were irrigated or could be irrigated. But when Stewart's resolution was enacted in October of 1888 and Powell hired to carry out an irrigation survey, that's not how he interpreted his mission.

Powell had for years been warning of disaster if Washington continued to allow homesteaders to settle land without first ensuring that the land had adequate access to water. He saw his new assignment as an opportunity to rectify the situation. With the public lands closed for further settlement and with an initial appropriation of $100,000, Powell set to work immediately by sending teams to do field work in New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Montana. The following year, Powell was given another $250,000 in funding and his staff began selecting sites for reservoirs. By June of 1889, Powell was able to certify about 150 reservoir sites and he had isolated only 30,500,000 acres of land that could be irrigated. But under pressure from their constituents, Western Congressman wanted to move more quickly to reopening the land. 

To make matters worse, the General Land Office inexplicably failed for ten months to notify its local offices that public lands had been closed to further settlement. In the interim, speculators had staked claims on lands that surveyors were considering for canals or reservoirs. The Land Office in Washington finally responded by ordering its local offices to cancel any claim filed after the public lands were closed, a move that further enraged Congressmen from the region. While tensions mounted, Powell ploughed on with his investigation seemingly unconcerned by the controversy. Of the 1,300,000 square miles under his investigation, he believed about 150,000 could be settled. This he argued was a huge area, "an empire one half as large as the entire cultivated area of the United States." That's not how Powell's adversaries in Congress saw it. To them, the land Powell proposed opening to settlers represented just eleven percent of the land available in the West. 

When Powell came before Congress in the summer of 1890, seeking a third appropriation for his survey, he met with hostility. The geologist had spent almost all his initial grants on investigative work, not on the construction of waterways. The Western Senators realized this investigative work could go on for years before irrigation would benefit anyone. In an early session of the House appropriation hearings, Senator Stewart made his views more than plain: "Every representative of the arid region -- I think there is no exception -- would prefer that there would be no appropriation to having it continue under Major Powell."

The following month at a Senate hearing, Powell was attacked for having too much power in suspending settlement in the West. Powell responded by claiming the suspension was necessary while rigorous investigation of the land was conducted. He went on to argue that "it would be almost a criminal act to go on as we are doing now, and allow thousands and hundreds of thousands of people to establish homes where they cannot maintain themselves."

The debate resulted in the biggest defeat of Powell's career. An amendment to the Sundry Civil Expenses Bill of that year threw open the public domain again. All claims on the land made since the area had been closed two years earlier were declared valid so long as settlers could prove they made the claim in good faith. And a drastic cut in the Congressional appropriation for Powell's work practically reduced the irrigation survey to a random mapping of possible reservoir sites.

Powell's warnings of disaster were not without justification. The very summer of his defeat in Washington, a disastrous drought brought misery to the great plains. Those caught in the calamity tried in an ad hoc fashion to ensure it would never happened again. But, as Powell would write, their token measures, prayers and crazy schemes would not protect them from hardship in the future. "There are those who would control the rains and change the clouds by boring artesian wells; there are those who would control the clouds by planting trees and preserving forests...and there are those who would control the rains by bombarding the heavens with popgun balloons.... Barbarians add costly offerings...more civilized people add confessions on belief.... But terpsichorean, sacrificial and fiducial agencies fail to change the desert into the garden.... Years of drought and famine come and years of flood and famine come, and the climate is not changed with dance, libation or prayer."

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